Experienced local activist talks about the past, present, and future of activism
The Carillon asked Florence Stratton, a retired English professor at the University of Regina: is activism futile?
“Of course not!” was the emphatic reply of an individual with decades of experience advocating for peace and justice. “Those of us engaged in the struggle for peace and justice don’t always win. But we do sometimes.”
In conversation with Stratton on the past, present, and future of activism, the Carillon considered the University of Regina’s Vision Statement. What communities might we live in if students embodied the first step and sought to reflect the world in which we want to live – a world that values empowered citizens? That is the world that Stratton strives for. In her words, “There is no other option.”
What is an empowered citizen? Duncan Green, Professor in Practice in International Development at the London School of Economics, described the earliest stage of empowerment as discovering the power within our self. It takes place in the hearts and minds of citizens who ask and answer questions: ‘Do I have rights? Am I a fit person to express a view? Am I willing and able to speak up, and what will happen if I do?’
At university, students explore unanswered questions, including those of the self. The values of the university are there to guide investigation and reflection. One may not always be aware of the internal process and find themself arriving “accidentally,” as Stratton did, in a situation that requires some of those questions answered.
Stratton was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin during the time of the Vietnam War. She was aware but hadn’t been taking part in any of the ongoing activism against the war. On exiting class one day, she stepped outside and noticed that students around her were crying. “Oh, these emotional Americans. They’re always crying about something!” Then Stratton realized that she too was crying.
It wasn’t emotion. Protesting students had occupied a Dow Chemical building on campus. The company’s products included napalm, a chemical compound used in the war with devasting collateral damages to communities and citizens. The university called the police that day, who deployed tear gas on the students. Stratton recalled being infuriated as she saw students coming out of the occupied building knocked to the ground by police with clubs “bashing them on their heads.”
Green explained that after finding the power within comes the process through which people engage with each other, and with decision-makers, to come together and create improvements. Engagement can be peaceful, such as in the day-to-day exercise of the social contract between citizen and government, but it may also involve disagreement and conflict, especially when power must be surrendered by the powerful to empower those beneath them.
In Stratton’s case, conflict had arrived, and looking around she saw a group of students pushing a police car into Lake Mendota. “I just went and joined them. It wasn’t easy but we got it in and then I thought about my student visa. I didn’t want to get deported, so I got out of there”.
A university that values empowered citizens is one that is preparing its members to use their expertise to serve each other. How we do so will vary, just as we vary as individuals. For Stratton, her experience at university and later teaching in Sierra Leone started her on a journey of decolonization that she is “still learning” about today, recognizing that colonialism in Canada is ongoing.
The Carillon asked Stratton to describe her experience with activism in terms of maintaining a positive outlook. “When I am feeling really low, I remember the ones we have won,” she replied. Some of the local wins include: ‘Friends of Regina Libraries’ saving the Connaught library from demolition and keeping the Dunlop Art Gallery and Prairie History Room in operation in 2003, Regina peace groups succeeding in keeping military training out of high schools in 2016, and ‘No Business in The Park’ succeeding in keeping large business development out of Wascana Park in 2022. “Sometimes we are really loud and strategic.”
Green agreed that the activism of empowered citizens doesn’t always lead to victory but there are common elements that play a role when they do. These include the importance of democratic space; diverse, nationally grounded coalitions; alliances between civil society organizations; and “contentiousness politics for contentious issues.”
Further, effective and accountable governments can empower citizens through everything from promoting norms of inclusion and non-discrimination to ensuring their own transparency and accountability. But governments are increasingly doing the opposite and repressing rather than empowering. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, published a Special Report in 2020 that found the condition of democracy and human rights had grown worse in 80 countries since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a global decline of democracy, citizens must increasingly ally with one another and at times, as Green said, participate in “contentiousness politics.” For example, the City of Regina was recently in national news for the repression of empowered citizenship. The Toronto Star reported on the forcible takedown of the City Hall tent encampment on July 28, 2023 under the title “People taken into custody as police dismantle encampment in front of Regina City Hall.” Experienced activist, Stratton, was one of the people taken into custody as police forced dozens of houseless individuals to leave the encampment.
Stratton shared with the Carillon the reasons why she chose to be arrested for the first time that day, after decades of activism for peace and justice. “For two reasons: Houselessness is the injustice that outrages me more than any other, and I had just seen the police pull an Indigenous man out of his wheelchair and drag him along the ground.”
Activists like Stratton are increasingly needed. Green described the nightmare of power holders as waking one morning to find that thousands of ordinary citizens had gathered in the main square of the capital demanding justice, vowing not to go home until they got it.
Stratton sees growth in local activism. There have been two large rallies at the Saskatchewan Legislative building this year: the ‘Rally for Public Education’ and the rally ‘Show Up for Saskatchewan’s Trans Youth.’ “Sometimes in the past, there have only been 3-20 people at events like these.”
Exercising democratic rights to deter governments from repressing the long-term building blocks of citizen empowerment like education and personal safety is a goal of activism. Activism can be the expression of our desire to reflect the world in which we want to live. As for the future? Stratton hopes to see some change: “I hope that it will look different because there are more and more of us out there.”